A life in love with music, Part II

Part I of this post can be found here.

More good luck

In the late 1970s, a lady who lived in my apartment building told me that her boyfriend was also a jazz musician and would soon be moving into the building. I was stunned when she mentioned the name Red Rodney (his bio can be seen here). Red was a trumpet player from Philly, who had played and recorded with the all-time genius of modern music, Charlie Parker. Red had quite a colorful history and many stories abound.

He was kind enough to let me sit in with him on several occasions.

Clark Terry

In late 1980 I heard from some other musicians that the great trumpeter Clark Terry (of Count Basie and Duke Ellington fame) was putting together a big band to go on the road. I obtained contact information for Clark’s manager who was handling the tour, and much to my surprise, the requirements were not purely musical. In addition to a recent recording, you had to submit a photograph.

Hmmm.

What’s that you say?? Hardly a “double-blind” audition? Something’s not quite right with that. You didn’t have to be Albert Einstein to figure out what was going on here. Clark Terry is African-American, and he wants to make sure that he has African-Americans in his band.

Perhaps the photographic requirement was related to the fact that despite being a creation of African-American culture, by 1980 Jazz had largely been abandoned by young African-American listeners and players.

I asked a friend to shoot a Polaroid (seriously dating myself, I know….) so that I could include it with the recording I planned to submit. But – before he snapped the photo, I reached back in time for the hair style I had in the mid-1970s – a mammoth, black-hole-like AFRO. We dimmed the lights, and he clicked the shutter.

The photo and recording were sent to Clark’s manager, and I was quite surprised to receive a call to join the band. It was a nine-week tour starting in February of 1981: three weeks in Europe, six weeks in the USA.

When we got to Europe, Clark went to lunch with some of the other band members, and told them: “I could have sworn that mofo Ned Otter was black, I picked him myself!”

That tour included Branford Marsalis on alto saxophone (he didn’t even own a tenor saxophone yet). To say that Branford and I were outspoken in our disapproval of Clark’s not-so-unique-to-jazz version of creative financial accounting would be an understatement.

Road Warrior

Chris Woods was a friend of Clark’s and a great alto saxophonist, but had the unfortunate task of being the road manager for us wild young folk.

After complaining about something, we would get the party line from Chris. One day, he ended his remarks with “And that’s all you need to know.”

That phrase would reverberate around the bus for the next nine weeks.

Branford and I would often recreate the events of the day, with extra helpings of outrageous mockery. It went something like this:

Me: “Hey Branford!”

Branford: “Yeah, man, what’s up?”

Me: “Look man, I’ve got a gig for you –”

Branford: “That’s great, man. Details please….”

Me: “Well look, it’s like this – first, we parachute into Zimbabwe…”

Branford: “Ok!”

Me: “We drive for 10 hours, do a sound check, then we do the gig –”

Branford: “Beautiful!”

Me: “Then, after the gig, we drive another 10 hours (no dinner), and uh…oh yeah, I almost forgot….that’s right…we have an unscheduled TV show….I don’t know how that slipped into the schedule…fancy that! But in exchange for the unscheduled TV show (which by the way you’re not getting paid for), we’ll be covering your hotel co-pay for tomorrow night”.

Branford: “Fantastic, man, I’m just happy to have a gig! Can’t wait!”

Me: “And that’s all you need to know–”

And it went downhill from there.

Loyalty

On the bus, there was always a clear delineation of loyalty. The booty-kissers were all up front with Clark. The in-betweens were in-between. And the trouble makers were in the back with Branford and myself. After our daily mock-a-thon, you could actually see the steam start to rise up out of Clark’s ears.

I figured that if I was going to be exploited, there was no reason I had to be quiet about it.

One night, Branford – who at least back then was a devious sort of fellow – switched the valves on Clark’s trumpet in between sets. But Clark was such a great trumpet player, he somehow managed to keep playing (I’m sure it required an effort worthy of Hercules).

Another time, Branford and I conspired to play a trick on the vocalist in the band. She was featured on “A Tisket, A Tasket”, made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, and after she sang the opening melody, it was Branford’s turn to solo. But we decided to change things up a bit. Branford stood up to play, and sort of mimed as if he was playing a solo, but I had the microphone passed down my way. The sounds that emanated from my horn would have made Albert Ayler sound like Jelly Roll Morton. The vocalist looked back in horror as Branford tried to keep from falling over with laughter.

Ahh..the Baptism of the Road.

Dizzy Gillespie

In 1988, I got word that Dizzy Gillespie was organizing a big band tour. One of the saxophonists who did the same tour in 1987 and was slated to do it in 1988 – had an opportunity to join a different ensemble that would give him more solo space. This created an opening in Dizzy’s band, and I sent a package to the musical director.

That guy threw my package into the large and ever-growing pile of packages that he had already received, never opening it. Rather than listening to them, he simply called George Coleman for a recommendation. George mentioned my name, and the guy said, “Yeah, I’ve got a package here from Ned Otter”. George suggested that he listen to what I’d sent, and if he liked what he heard, to give me a call.

I was very fortunate to be able to play with Dizzy Gillespie on that tour in 1988. We played Carnegie Hall in New York, Albert Hall in London, massive amphitheatres all throughout Europe, and even went to Istanbul. I am greatly indebted to George for referring me.

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in Europe with Dizzy Gillespie, July 1988

(somber faces due to rain delay….)

Further studies

George Coleman mostly performed with a quartet/quintet, but in the early 1970s started an octet. He wrote a lot of the arrangements for this ensemble, but there were contributions by other great musicians as well. In 1996 I produced a recording of George’s octet, and got bitten by the arranging bug myself. My first effort was an arrangement of “Tenderly” – it took six weeks, day and night trying to get it together.

I poured over the existing arrangements in George’s octet book. Among others, there were contributions by Harold Vick, Frank Foster, Frank Strozier, George Coleman, Harold Mabern and Bill Lee (father of renowned filmmaker Spike Lee).

Bill Lee’s offerings were unique – they had a quality that was different than any of the others. I had met Bill years earlier at his home in Brooklyn, when George and I passed through one time.

And so I thought – why not contact Bill Lee for some lessons on arranging and composition? Beginning in 2000 I studied with Bill as often as possible for about a year, and it revolutionized my approach to music. I can say without reservation that Bill Lee is one of the greatest musicians that I have been fortunate enough to be around.

Coda

More than 50 years have passed since there has been a period of great jazz innovation.

Some say that it’s due to the (dis)-integration of the African-American community, that the melting pot of an essentially closed community gives birth to these types of culturally significant seismic shifts.

I’m not sure what’s at the root of it, but I can’t help but think that the chart on this page has a lot to do with it:

The USA is at the top of the television viewing hierarchy, weighing in at a whopping 293 minutes per-person on a daily basis. That’s almost five hours daily, thirty-five hours weekly.

The jazz clubs that were prevalent in all urban environments have all but disappeared. Even New York City – the supposed Mecca of Jazz – has but a handful of clubs left, and a significant portion of those are tourist traps.

Jazz and classical music suffer from the same type of issues: lack of exposure for new audiences. To paraphrase great pianist Barry Harris: “people don’t like jazz but never really heard it…” I think exposure to jazz would have a positive effect on a significant percentage of young people.

Thanks for reading –

Ned Otter

New York City, 2014

A life in love with music, Part I

Music is my first love – it is an unparalleled force of auditory seduction. Without equal in its ability to bridge cultural, political and geographic divides, it is a union of the unspoken, lyrical and rhythmic aspects of sonic vibration.

No disrespect intended to any lyricists, but lyrics by their nature are limited to what humans can express in words. Perhaps it’s because I am an instrumentalist, I relate directly to the most powerful musical force: the melody.

Many have transcribed and studied the musical notes that great jazz musicians play. However, throughout those classic performances, many other facets of music wash over the listener, which in totality have a powerful effect on the perceived musical experience. A majority of those facets cannot be embodied by any known means of symbolization.

I am so grateful that I have alternate means of economic survival outside of music (see my technology post here). This has allowed me to be true to my music, and avoid the “music as a job” approach that a lot of musicians have to deal with in order to simply survive.

Musical ancestry

While attending school during his early years, my father had been a member of the “color guard”. He was one of the few who was chosen to carry a flag during special activities, and the role was coveted. But there was a problem. Someone – they weren’t sure who – was throwing the entire vocal ensemble off key. They tracked it down to my father, and told him that if he wanted to continue carrying the flag, he would have to stop singing. He had to mouth the words to the national anthem from that day forward.

Bob Otter was absolutely, unequivocally, one hundred percent tone-deaf (luckily he pursued the visual realm, documented here).

Next generation

My brother Sam was the first saxophonist I ever saw perform.

In 1970, he played the Paul Desmond classic “Take Five” with the concert band at I.S. 70 (Intermediate School, for those of you not familiar with public school abbreviations).

It was as if I was struck by lightning – I decided at that moment to become a professional musician, despite the fact that (other than kid stuff on a piano) I had never touched a musical instrument. I had no idea if I had any aptitude for things musical.

First mentor

I followed in my brother’s footsteps and attended I.S. 70. It was a fairly new school, and had a large group of young and dedicated teachers. One of them was a tireless motivator, a ceaseless source of musical inspiration: band director Jerry Sheik taught generations of us young folks how to play and appreciate music.

Sheik was not your typical middle school band director. He was a professional musician – a drummer – and had personal relationships with many great musicians of the day, among them Tito Puente. Sheik was my first musical mentor, and as such, he occupies a special place in my musical lineage.

In my last year at I.S.70, Sheik selected a few of us to be members of his “sign-out” crew. Young students who could not afford to purchase musical instruments could take instruments home from Sheik’s band room, and it was our job to keep track of it all. As a member of Sheik’s sign-out crew, we had access to him more than the other kids. After regular school hours, he sometimes played records in the band room, introducing us to new music. One day he was spinning a record that included Cannonball Adderley’s performance of “The Song Is You”, and I asked him who the record belonged to. Seeing how captivated I was by the music, Sheik replied: “You!”, and insisted that I keep it (it is a part of my record collection to this day).

Five days a week, three years running, Sheik was part of my world. While in his care, I developed a deep and infinite love of all things musical, particularly jazz. As Sheik’s musical palette was extremely diverse, we played all types of music. Perhaps because it was also the height of the disco era, I developed a permanent dislike of music of a flippant and/or purely commercial nature.

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Jerry Sheik, Musical Mentor Extraordinaire, 1974

photo by Robert Otter

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Me – One Funky White Boy, circa 1973

My brother Sam Otter died of shock after taking this photo

Not a natural

I would imagine that my entry into instrumental music was not dissimilar to others. Learning to read and notate music was fun and exciting, but learning to play a musical instrument was slow and frustrating. My ears were way ahead of what I could execute, and at times, my parents would beg me to stop practicing. The endless repetition, the going-nowhere-no-matter-how-many-times-you-tried-to-push-forward – it all added up to a glacially slow and often tortuous path towards improvement (I will confess that a few years later, still struggling to develop technique on the alto saxophone – many, many times did I have the window to my 6th floor apartment open, seriously contemplating whether or not to throw my horn out like a Frisbee…).

Between the ages of eleven to thirteen, the main focus of my life was to advance my musical skills to a point where I might gain entry to “Sheik’s Freaks” as the I.S. 70 Stage Band was known.

Sheik had a friend named Jay Dryer who coached me for my audition to the High School of Performing Arts (known by those who attended simply as PA). I was accepted to PA, which was the school that the movie “Fame” was based on (and no, we did not dance on the cars at lunch time….). Attending PA exposed me to a higher level of musicality than I had been accustomed to. We had sight-singing for an entire year, and that class radically altered the way I heard, recognized and identified different notes.

Students came from all over NYC to attend PA, some from as far away as Staten Island. At the end of my junior year, my friends started talking about this young saxophonist they knew that would be arriving at PA the following year. I got so sick of hearing about this guy, I couldn’t stand it anymore. He was only fourteen years old – how great could he be?

I literally could not believe my ears, when I heard the object of their praise – a brilliant young musician named Drew Francis. He had it all – perseverance coupled with improvisation, composition and arranging skills (and just to add insult to injury – he also had perfect pitch). In addition to saxophone (soprano, alto and tenor), he was an excellent flute and clarinet player. At just fourteen years of age, Drew Francis was light years ahead of anything I could possibly wrap my brain around at that time.

Drew used to make recordings in the basement of his Staten Island house, and one of them included a mutual friend named Dan Weiss, who kindly supplied me with this recording of Drew. It was made when Drew was still a teenager, probably about seventeen.

Sadly, the brilliant light of Drew Francis did not shine long. He passed away at just 39 years old, never having realized a fraction of his great potential.

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Drew Francis (left), Randy Andos (right)

(photograph by David Rothschild, used by permission)

Second mentor

One crucial development that arose out of attending PA was meeting tenor saxophonist Jeff Gordon. Jeff had a younger brother that attended PA, and he urged me to study with Jeff. By this time I could read and notate music well, understood the basics of harmony, and was a good instrumentalist, given the relatively few years I had been playing the alto saxophone. However, I knew nothing of improvisation. I would go to jam sessions and play transcriptions of other musician’s solos. After my performance of the transcribed solo ended, I was not able to contribute anything of my own.

With regard to studying with Jeff Gordon, I wanted to “try before I buy”, and so in 1976 I attended a concert where Jeff played as part of a larger ensemble. “Blown away” would be an apt description of my reaction. At twenty-two years of age, Jeff was a young lion, bursting with musical feeling. He had everything I coveted.

While continuing to play alto at PA, at seventeen I acquired a tenor, and began my studies with Jeff. After about a year, Jeff informed me that my studies with him were complete He said that I needed to seek out musicians who could take me to the next level, and the two names he mentioned were Frank Foster and George Coleman. I had heard a little bit of George Coleman on Miles Davis’ classic “Four and More” album, and Jeff had also played for me George’s great solo on “Have You Met Miss Jones” from a Chet Baker album.

Sad as I was to move away from the musical sphere of Jeff Gordon, I picked up the phone and called Frank Foster to see if he would take me on. Frank said he was too busy, and was not accepting students at that time.

Right place, right time

Right around this time, I received a phone call from an old friend that I had known at I.S. 70, Josiah Weiner, whose father had a truly unique talent – he could fix any type of art work. We’re talking about art objects that resides in museums and personal collections. As such, the elder Mr. Weiner knew many, many people in the art world, and one of them was Merton Simpson. Mert was one of the foremost dealers of primitive art in the world, and also a tenor saxophonist and jazz fan.

Josiah was calling to tell me that Mert was throwing a party at his gallery at 80th and Madison, and that there would be jazz musicians performing. Knowing of my interest in Jazz, Josiah asked Mert if I could come up and play. Mert agreed.

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Mert Simpson

photographer unknown

I arrived at the gallery and listened for the first set. Then the musicians asked me to come up and sit in. There was a saxophonist, trumpeter, and a rhythm section. Muscles bursting everywhere, the saxophonist looked like a football player – think “Iron Man”. I remember that I only knew two of the songs they played: “How High The Moon” and “Body and Soul”.

After the set, I walked up to the saxophonist and thanked him for letting me play. I asked him his name, and he replied:

“George – George Coleman…” (this was about two weeks after Jeff Gordon suggested that I study with him).

I picked my jaw up off the floor, ran over to Josiah, and called him every kind of curse word that I could think of for not telling me that I was going to be sitting in with the great George Coleman. Josiah’s response: “Who is George Coleman????”

And so began the longest and most profound musical and personal relationship of my life. I studied with George monthly for about five years. He performed quite often at that time, and I recorded his live performances (still have my cassettes!). At my lessons we would play the recordings back, and I’d ask him about specific things that I didn’t understand.

Many, many pearls of wisdom were imparted at these lessons. But the most precious gift I received was that he taught me how to teach myself. Without fail, all of the musicians that I have known from his generation would never tell you how to play. They might show you an example of one way to do something, and then ask you to continue it.

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George Coleman, NYC c. 1980

photographer unknown

University of the Streets

A critical part of my musical education was the time spent around George Coleman and his brilliant band members in between sets, in the back rooms of jazz clubs in New York City. This accumulated hang time, combined with the band stand time that he generously granted me, made all the difference in the world in my musical development. I sat in often, and therefore got to play with and know many of the great musicians that George was associated with. A short list would have to include:

Jamil Nasser, Harold Mabern, Hilton Ruiz, Mario Rivera, Ray Drummond, Billy Higgins, Danny Moore, Al Foster, Walter Bolden, Ahmad Jamal, Junior Cook, Frank Strozier, Harold Vick, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Hart, and many, many others.

I was trespassing in the rarified air and I knew it.

An unexpected phone call from an old friend had positioned me in the exact time and place to encounter one of the all-time great saxophone stylists. George Coleman became my most influential musical mentor, and foster-father. His effect on my musical development is undeniable.

There will be another section to this post.

Thanks for reading –

Ned Otter

New York City, 2014

SQL Server can change your life

Roy Dorman

I believe it was 1991 or so when I first met Roy. He was in is mid-thirties, and completing a degree in philosophy at Fordham University here in New York City. Roy was coupled with a very close friend; I took a liking to him immediately.

It’s a tall order to find a teaching position in philosophy under the best of circumstances, and upon graduation, Roy struggled to find work (his age was likely not an asset). To meet the financial demands of living in this city, he toiled at whatever jobs came his way: limousine dispatcher, real-estate manager, etc.

After getting to know him for a while, I could see that Roy had the right combination of natural skills that would be perfect for a role in technology, and I told him so. He was extremely responsible, persevering, detail oriented, and enjoyed solving problems.

Remembering my own struggles to wrap my brain around technology (detailed here), I said to Roy – “Hey man, if you ever want to do something in the tech world, just let me know – I’d be glad to teach you.”

Time ticked on by, and then one day in early 1994 the phone rang – Roy was calling to say that he was ready to begin his studies.

First ascent

The first hurdle we faced was that Roy had zero disposable income, so I offered to lend him the money to purchase a computer. Our plan was that he would do self-study from home, with my oversight. However, there was one gigantic problem with this scenario – he had a very young child at home (I don’t know what we were thinking). As the great jazz musician Ahmad Jamal told me years ago – “you cannot serve two masters.”

With no measurable progress after a fair amount of study time, the likelihood of Roy being gainfully employed in the field of technology was hovering around impossible.

We needed another plan.

Second ascent

I could see that the obligations of a husband and father were not easily circumvented. On the other hand, Roy had worked a series of gigs that had zero financial upside, so he was highly motivated – an essential requirement of all heavy lifting.

Our second plan was more structured and required a larger commitment from both of us. Also built in to the plan were some “teeth”.

I asked Roy how much money he needed to survive, and the figure he came up with was $1,000 per week. I agreed to sustain him financially throughout his studies. But because lending money to a friend can jeopardize the relationship, we approached the financial aspect from a different perspective. I told Roy that I would not lend him the money he needed – I would give him the money he needed. And should he one day be in a financial position to return the gesture, so be it. We went forward without my having any expectation of ever seeing the money that flowed to him.

Roy had no idea if he could morph into a SQL Server DBA, and I was keenly aware of the vast amount of trust he placed in me. It was an awesome responsibility, to say the least.

In late 1996 I started a contract for a large migration of 100+ MS SQL Servers from version 4.21 to 6.5 and this put me in a position to help Roy out. I wrote him a letter explaining what was expected of each of us, and what would happen if we did not succeed. With the letter I enclosed a check for $2,000 saying that there would be subsequent payments of $1,000 per week. My estimation was that it would take approximately nine months for Roy to become employable, but our timeline was open-ended.

Tough love

My letter in part said:

“If I was you, I’d be as frugal as humanly possible with this check, for the following reasons:

· I eat before you do

· Anything can happen

· Don’t assume there will be a next check, because I don’t. You’re a consultant now; your income is unpredictable.”

“I will evaluate your performance each month and discuss with you where you stand. If for whatever reason I deem that you are not living up to your end of the bargain – and it does not change – the deal is off, I become yet another line item in your long list of creditors, and our lives resume as before.“

I didn’t like to be that hard on Roy, but I felt it was the only way we could get to the finish line. It was for his own good, and he knew it.

I told him that he had to treat his SQL Server education exactly like a job. He received a set of keys to my studio apartment in Greenwich Village, and had to be there five days a week, eight hours a day.

To the grindstone

In addition to being a SQL Server DBA, I’ve had a life in music. Many people have come to me for music lessons, and almost none of them have ever returned after the initial encounter. Perhaps it’s because I don’t sugar-coat what’s involved with pursuing the subtleties of creative improvised music. Roy stands alone as the only student I’ve ever had that got into the long run with me.

Keep in mind that he had only very basic knowledge of computers when we began, and he knew absolutely nothing about operating systems or database software. I’ve sometimes thought that if Roy knew how much he’d have to learn in such a short span of time, he might have backed out. But ignorance is bliss, as they say.

Each day I arrived home after my SQL DBA gig, and we worked like mad men.

I drilled him.

I grilled him.

I imparted mindful after mindful of technology upon Roy Dorman each and every day. Weeks turned to months, and slowly, his veil of techno-ignorance lifted, giving way to comprehension and knowledge. After seven months, I had taught Roy everything I could think of (but I did leave off some critical items, such as how to determine how much memory is installed on a SQL Server! Sorry, Roy!).

One day I arrived home to find a package he had left for me. Inside was a collage that he made about our collaboration, and I laughed out loud when I saw it. It had photos of the two of us, plus artwork for Sybase, Oracle and MS SQL – really hysterical. Also included was a very small pair of scissors. I called Roy and asked him what the scissors were for. He said: “To cut the cord!”

It was time for Roy to fly.

Looking for a gig

Roy wanted to work as a consultant, but towards the late 1990s there seemed to be more opportunities for him as an employee. Also, with a wife and young child, he needed the benefits that came with full time employment.

One day he called and said that he was going to have an interview. There was something in his voice that sounded kind of funny. His appointment was to be at the same company I was working for, and in the same building where I worked. He asked me: “Are your manager’s initials ‘XYZ’?”

They were indeed.

Unbelievably, Roy would have an interview in my office the following Monday – I wonder how long those odds were.

As luck would have it, when Roy arrived on site, my manager asked me to given him a technical interview, and then he “introduced” me to Roy (neither of us let on, of course).

You will not be shocked to learn that I gave Roy the green light. Not because I had trained him, but because he was a good candidate, and would have been an asset to the team. But as it turned out, the company decided not to engage the services of Roy Dorman. I was really disappointed – we would have had a ball working together.

Opportunity knocks

Roy told me that he was being considered for positions at two different companies – there was now third party endorsement of his skills. He had studied hard and done well.

One of the companies had three servers, and the other had fifteen. I told him that he had to take the job at the fifteen-server company, but he was extremely hesitant to do so. I stated in no uncertain terms that the larger company was his only move. When he asked me why, I told him: “Because you’ll learn more there.”

Roy accepted the position at the fifteen-server company, and it was the beginning of a career that would encompass working at some very large corporations, such as Viacom, SAC Capital and others.

Through our collaboration, an intensely personal bond between us was formed – I looked upon Roy as a brother.

The Eternal Optimist

In late August of 2008, Roy got in touch. I was shocked to hear him reveal that he had Stage IV colon cancer. One thing I remember him saying to me was that he was looking at it as one of life’s “bumps in the road”. That was Roy’s essence – he was The Eternal Optimist.

For a while he did well with treatment. But after about a year, it was clear that Roy was losing the battle. When I picked him up from the hospital to take him home for the last time, he thanked me for giving him an opportunity to do better. I told him the he did all the work – my role was simply one of guidance (and ass kicker drill sergeant).

Tragically, Roy passed away in early 2010, leaving behind a wife and two beautiful young daughters. For about ten years, he got to live the life he wanted (if you call working living, that is).

Coda

What can we take away from all of this?

· There was a lot less to learn in the late 1990s in order to become gainfully employed as a DBA

· it’s never too late to change your life

· Motivation often trumps raw talent

· Good karma is good

In New York City, for decades the final destination for many who were down on their luck was the infamous Bowery. My mother told me that every time she walked along that famed stretch of Skid Row, she came home broke. You need not be Sigmund Freud to figure out where my generous side comes from.

Some of you reading this post might think that I had ulterior motives for helping Roy – that nobody does something for nothing. I can assure you there were no obligations on Roy’s part, but he gave me every penny of the $29,600 that he received.

Now that I think of it, perhaps I did get more from Roy than what I initially gave him. Every time I think of Roy Dorman, and what we achieved together, a warm smile spreads across my face.

Good DBAs always strive to be better at their trade. How many of us attempt to improve our humanity?

I challenge everyone reading this post to commit to making another person’s life better in some way, large or small – no strings attached.

Thanks for reading –

Ned Otter

New York City, 2013

The Road to Technology

A Tale of Perseverance

Initial resistance

During the mid-1980s, as personal computer technology started to gain acceptance in the work place, I was steadfastly against learning anything about it. I had various types of jobs, including croupier, piano tuner, trash man in my apartment building and foot messenger.

By 1988, however, I had somewhat relented. Based on my newly discovered interest in genealogy, my birthday present that year was a DOS software package called “Roots III” that arrived on 5-1/4 inch floppy disks (seriously dating myself, I know). As I struggled to learn the difference between a path and a folder, technology began to win me over. Computers were awesomely cool, and my inner-gadget-guy came alive.

In April of 1988 the phone rang (yes, they used to have bells and literally “ring” when you received a call) with an offer to go on the road with Dizzy Gillespie. Despite my mother being very, very ill at the time, I agreed to hit the road for a tour of the USA and Europe, for a total of three weeks. We played Carnegie Hall, which was a real thrill, and all the major jazz festivals of Europe. Dizzy was about 72 at the time, and other than in 1987, had not worked with a full big band in many, many years.

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in Europe with Dizzy Gillespie, July 1988

I stayed in Europe after the tour with Diz ended, and returned to NYC in late October of 1988. Having always been too stubborn to play any music I didn’t feel passionate about, I considered learning word processing to fill in the gaps. I had a friend at the time who did this type of work, and agreed to let me spend time on his IBM “clone”.

In order to get a temp job doing word processing, you had to type at least 50 words a minute, with very few mistakes. I already owned an electric typewriter, and so I bought a typing practice book. After a while my typing improved to the point where I thought I was ready to look for work.

Without fail, each and every temp agency that I applied to had a typing test, and I flunked them all. But then I found one agency which had only a computer test for Word Perfect (does anyone even use that any more?). The guy at the front desk asked me if I had ever been there before, and I replied no. I took the test, and just missed a passing grade. So I went back home, researched the parts of the test that I thought I had difficulty with, and I returned to the same agency a week later. When the guy asked me if I had ever been then before, I said no. The test was exactly the same and you will not be shocked to learn that I passed.

I was assigned to the Asia Bureau of the United Nations Development Program, a few blocks north of the famous Secretariat building, and my rate was $14.50 per hour. While there I met James Oliver, a desktop database contractor (dBase, FoxPro) who was making the staggering sum of $45 per hour. We became friends, and I started to become more curious about what James did. I began to wonder if I could ever wrap my brain around the type of work that he was involved in.

In late 1989 I came into enough money to take an extended break from the work world, and concentrate full-time on becoming a computer programmer. I left the UNDP job, and purchased a 286 Toshiba laptop for the whopping sum of $2,500.

My goal was to become a desktop database programmer, and I blocked out 18 months to get it done. There was just one small problem:

I had no idea how to go about doing it.

The internet did not yet exist for public consumption, and there was only a single book on the specific technology that I was interested in. But there were dial-up services like Compuserve, which had many bulletin boards with specific topics. One was about FoxPro, a desktop database (pre-Microsoft purchase). It was a fantastic alternative to dBase, which was owned by then software giant Ashton-Tate.

Long is the road, and hard is the way

I am truthful when I say that I spent so many hours per day programming in FoxPro, that towards the end of each day, I could no longer sit down. I took a stack of LPs (vinyl records for you young folks) from my shelves, set my laptop on the stack, and continued to program into the wee hours of the morning while standing up. Every day. Every night. Every month. I wrote programs for my sister’s real estate office, my dentist, non-profits, for anyone that would let me, and I didn’t get paid a cent (except from the dentist). I locked myself in my 400 square foot apartment in Greenwich Village, and vowed not to emerge until I was a good programmer. During the approximately two years I studied, I would guess-timate that I put in 10 to 15 hours per day, and got about 5 years experience.

FoxProFloppy

One of my 5-1/4 FoxPro floppies

I had started to look for programming work a little on the late side, and by the end of 1991 my money ran out. I was four months behind on my rent, and had received shut-off notices for both my electrical and telephone service. My credit card debt exceeded $18,000 (and those were 1990s dollars).

Light at the end of the tunnel

In February of 1992 I had an interview at Chemical Bank (later devoured by Chase), and the interview went well. I worked there for a year as a FoxPro programmer.

While at Chemical I got word that FoxPro programmers were in high demand at a high profile Wall Street bank. I interviewed there and was accepted. But after a year of working without a break at Chemical, I wanted to have two weeks off before starting on Wall Street. But I had to give two weeks notice at Chemical. The rep at the agency that I was working through thought that a month was too long to wait before starting, but I insisted. On my last work day at Chemical Bank I received a phone call from the agency. They had heard from the new bank that they “no longer required the services of Ned Otter.”

But I was done with Chemical, and moved on to freelance work.

A short while later, I had another interview at the same high-profile Wall Street bank, but in a different department. While in the building, I ran into the manager that interviewed me for the first position (she wished they had hired me). She asked what I was doing there, and I told her that I had another interview. She looked me dead in the eye and said: “After what they did to you, I would never set foot in this building again”. But I was determined to gain entry to the forbidden inner sanctum of Wall Street banking.

A lot of the early desktop database systems that were implemented at this bank were actually coded by traders, not programmers. They had deep analytical knowledge of their business, but their code was unreadable, uncommented, and unmaintainable. I knew I was in trouble when just such a person ushered me into a room where I took a written test, and I would not be considered for a position unless I passed this phase. This quagmire of formulae and symbols was somehow expected to be interpreted by those with perhaps vast programming experience, but zero business knowledge.

Needless to say, the entire experience was a disaster. Afterwards, they told the agency to send their best candidate. The agency said that they had already shot down their best candidate (me).

A few weeks later, I was told that another department in the same bank needed someone with my qualifications (they knew of the prior debacles, but agreed to have me interview). The staff that interviewed me weren’t immediately convinced to hire me (the agency rep half-jokingly offered them a set of free steak knives if they would give me a chance). We all finally came to an agreement that I would work there for one week, and if they didn’t like me, they didn’t have to compensate me (an outrageous proposition, but I was sure they would keep me if I could just get my foot in the door). Things went well the first week, and they decided to keep me on. The manager later asked me why I kept coming back for interviews. I told him: “Because you mofos kept saying no”.

I ain’t no accidental DBA

FoxPro was a derivative of dBase, both products using non-standard ways to access, retrieve and manipulate data. FoxPro had started to incorporate enough of the standard query language for me to consider making a shift to corporate database platforms that were based on SQL (Structured Query Language). One of those database platforms was Unmentionable-DB, and at the Wall Street bank, there were many Database Administrators (DBAs) of Unmentionable-DB on staff. I asked one of them what it was like to be a DBA.

“If hours and hours of sheer boredom, followed by moments of absolute terror sounds good to you, you’ll enjoy being a DBA.”

That intrigued me, but there were two other motivational factors:

1. I could see the end of desktop databases on the horizon

2. While faxing a time sheet to my agency, by chance I saw an incoming fax from Unmentionable-DB to the bank. It was an invoice for one of their consultants who was on site at the bank, and my jaw dropped when I saw that the daily rate was in excess of $1,200. I was stunned. That was four times what James Oliver was making at UNDP.

So I set my sights on becoming a DBA of the Unmentionable-DB platform.

In 1994 I took the Unmentionable-DB certification exams and passed, never having actually touched the product (hence the universal distrust of most certifications). I wanted to get my hands on the software to get some real-world experience, and was overjoyed to find out that Unmentionable-DB had a developer version of their database that was priced (outrageously) at $1,000. There was only one catch:

You had to pay an additional $4,000 for an annual support contract.

That’s a lot of money today, in 2013; it was a small fortune in 1994. I argued with them that I wouldn’t need support, as they had just certified me on their database platform. But they would not yield. I paid the outrageous sum and got my hands on it, but the entire episode put such a bad taste in my mouth, that I vowed to not use or touch Unmentionable-DB ever again (and have maintained that vow to this day).

Then a new player in the database market made its mark.

While at Chemical Bank in 1992, one of the guys I worked with got a hold of a new database platform called Microsoft SQL Server, and it ran on the IBM OS/2 operating system. This was a time when all software was delivered on 5-1/4 inch floppy disks, or 3-1/2 inch not-so-floppy disks (OS/2 had to be installed from approximately 20 not-so-floppies). It took forever to install, and then on the last disk, it failed. Ultimately I got it loaded, but on my puny 286 computer it ran so slowly, I lost interest completely.

Fast forward to 1995 – Microsoft had introduced its own operating system, Windows NT. I committed to learning their database platform, and have never looked back.

Ned Otter

New York City, 2013